My Nightmare

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It was raining outside when I went to bed. The pitter patter on my roof lulled me into a sound sleep which led to a very strange dream. I was back at work as a Dean of Faculty somewhere. I did not recognize the school where I had seemingly landed a new job. It was the first day of classes and everything was in a state of chaos. I was attempting to calm the situation and quickly losing the battle. Most of the teachers in the place were unqualified and thoroughly confused. I ran around like a chicken with its head cut off doing my best to set things right, but somehow my efforts made little difference. 

By the time I awoke from this nightmare I felt more exhausted than if I had stayed awake all night, rather than enduring the terrible images that had somehow wormed their way into my mind. I found myself wondering what might have brought on such a frightening scenario since I have been retired for quite some time now. Was it the fact that school had resumed once again or was it something I had eaten before going to bed? Then I remembered all of the commentaries about teacher shortages that I had seen during the week. 

I suppose that I have never fully relaxed and turned over the task of educating our children and teens to a younger group of people. I still hold mathematics classes three mornings a week and I do a bit of tutoring in the evening. Many of my younger colleagues are continue to be dedicated to the art and science of teaching, so I hear their commentaries about the current state of schools quite often. I intimately understand all of the difficulties that have arisen during the last couple of years due to the pandemic and a political wave that is focusing on questioning school curriculum. I also know that the fear of a school shooting is real and hovers in the back of every teacher’s mind. Mostly though, the most dedicated and masterful teachers simply want to provide the best quality of instruction to their students as possible, often without a great deal of support. 

I have always said that the old idea that those who can’t do anything else end up teaching is exactly wrong. In truth those who stay in the classroom for more than a few years are some of the most altruistic and talented individuals in our country. The literally view education as a vocation, something that they were destined to do. They are the rare souls so consumed with a desire to spread knowledge to the young generation that they are willing to work for less money and less respect than they might otherwise receive in a different profession. They work longer hours than anyone ever imagines and spend their own money gathering resources for their students. They provide the most important foundation of our society while often receiving little praise for their efforts. 

So it should not be surprising to anyone that there is a nationwide teacher shortage. Many of our finest educators decided to retire early. Others simply gave up the good fight and found alternative jobs. The ridiculous emphasis on testing, the insinuations that teachers too woke or even grooming students became all too much to bear, even as teachers knew that such things were overblown and rarely if ever happening. Sadly many of those that did return are quietly whispering plans to find a way out in the coming future if things don’t get better.  

Now we have situations where teaching jobs are being offered to veterans with only sixty hours of college credit. The idea is that such people will have an opportunity to get on the job training that will result in a degree and full certification in five years. While that sounds like a rather creative way of finding souls to fill the vacancy while also giving those who have served our country an opportunity to build a career, my instincts as a former teacher and Dean of Faculty tell me that there will be countless unintended consequences of such solutions. This will only fill the vacancies without addressing the real problems that exist in education today. In the meantime our children will suffer from the inexperience and lack of academic knowledge that such candidates will most surely exhibit. The kind of chaos of my dream will no doubt come true. 

Most of my grandchildren are already in college or have earned degrees, but they saw the beginnings of the teacher shortage before graduating from high school. One grandson had taken advanced mathematics classes from the seventh grade so that he might progress to Calculus BC in his senior year. Unfortunately, the teacher who had been slated to instruct the students in this college level class had a family emergency that required him to leave the school. As a result my grandson did not get the course that would have better prepared him for the engineering courses that lay ahead for him. 

This year more than half of the teachers who had been scheduled to teach another of my grandsons are no longer at his high school. Nobody knows any of the new teachers or what their qualifications or lack of them might be. Instead of continuity in the progression of education, many students are experiencing gaps produced by less qualified teachers who are filling spots rather than being chosen for their expertise in understanding the importance of the scope and sequencing of knowledge and skills. 

There are many things that state governments and local school districts might do to improve our schools and none of it has anything to do with creating rules that stifle the creativity of educators. Certainly higher salaries are part of the equation but equally important is providing respect for teachers. That begins with asking them what needs to be done to elevate the public view of their profession. They are also the specialists who know the needs of their students. Lawmakers, whose only experience with schooling is once being a student, should not be in charge of deciding the fate of our schools. The experts are the people in the classroom and we are well past time in listening to and acting on what they have to say. If we are to save our schools it will not be by simply filling the gaps with unqualified people and hoping for the best. We need to quit insulting our teachers on just about every level. It’s time we ask them what is needed to repair our schools. 


The Farm

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There was a time when my paternal grandparents lived on a farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap, Arkansas. The place was little more that a blip on the map, but it had once been a site that boasted a post office and a jail. By the time I went to visit when I was six or seven years old the old town had been mostly abandoned and the road into the hills lead to a hodgepodge of homes and farms far away from what I then thought of as civilization.

Many of the places were still devoid of indoor plumbing and electricity. The people lived the way their ancestors had existed a hundred years before, save for their automobiles and tractors. My grandparents appeared to have the most grand and modern home in the area that was fully equipped with an indoor bathroom and electricity that ran their lights and their television. Nonetheless it was not such luxuries that drew me to our visits with them, but rather the glories of nature than were in abundance around them. 

Without the distractions of city life, nature became our entertainment and it was always a glorious adventure. Since we always visited during the summer when school was closed for a long holiday, the area was in full bloom. Crops of squash, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, corn, potatoes, peaches, berries, watermelon, cantaloupe, peas, okra, cucumbers, and onions were growing in profusion in fields in front of and behind the house. It was a cornucopia of food that my grandparents would preserve and store for use in the long winter months. 

I don’t think I have ever seen more butterflies and bees anywhere else on earth. The tiny critters were drawn to the feast that my grandparents had created. Birds circled overhead chirping songs that my grandmother seemed to understand as she called back to them with sounds that mimicked their mode of communication. The cow grazed lazily in the pasture, becoming bloated with the milk that my grandfather would collect each day. Those buckets of foaming white liquid were beautiful in their simplicity and worth. 

The chickens and were free to range and enjoy a life of loving care from my grandparents. They laid their eggs which my grandmother carefully collected each morning and serenaded us with their constant clucking. The rooster was our alarm clock, announcing the dawn of each new day. Every so often Grandma would select one of the older members of the flock as a candidate for dinner. She would deftly catch the unsuspecting fowl by the neck and make a quick motion with her wrist that ended the life of the bird. That night our chicken dinner would be fresh and tasty, if a bit unnerving for me. 

I was always in awe of my tiny grandmother whose height never quite reached five feet and whose weight was alway under one hundred pounds. This tiny woman was a tower of strength and energy and folk knowledge that was as interesting as the pages of the Foxfire book series. She might have authored one of those volumes had she been able to read or write. Instead she spread her knowledge through example, showing us how to track animals and where to find edible berries and plants in the wild. 

Grandma would take us on long hikes into the hills behind her farm, teaching us how to clear a safe path for ourselves by beating the brushy land with a walking stick before proceeding forward. She counseled us to wear hats to keep the sun from damaging our skin and to protect our arms with shirts that had long sleeves. She was like a tracker of old, able to notice even the tiniest change in the landscape. She may not have had schooled knowledge, but she was an encyclopedia of common sense. She used it to hunt squirrels and birds that she cooked in tasty dishes. She wielded a cane fishing pole like a professional fisherman.

The sunrises and sunsets on the farm were spectacular and when the evening came stars filled the nighttime sky in an abundance I had never seen in the city. Lightning bugs flitted around the yard and a cool breeze stole away the heat of the day. We spent our evenings sitting on the front porch in the dark, talking of family and neighbors and the accomplishments of the day. Grandpa told stories from his boyhood in such an entertaining way that we were captivated. 

Then there were Grandma’s flowers which grew in beds in front of and behind the house. Many have said that she was able to plant a dry dead stick and make it bloom. Somehow that story seemed so real to me because I have never before or since seen such a variety of blooms at a private residence. The landscape was a riot of colors that produced happy thoughts in anyone who gazed at them.

The night would bring bedtime and we would all go inside to sleep with the sounds of frogs and wind whispering past the open windows. Once in awhile we might hear the cry of a wildcat coming from the hills. The big box fans sang a lullaby that put us to sleep where we dreamed of the beautiful earth and it creatures that resided on Grandma and Grandpa’s farm. It seemed like heaven to me. 

Those Fabulous Eighties

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If I had to pick one decade that truly worked out well for me it would be the nineteen eighties. I was still cute and energetic and filled with reachable goals. I had finally understood that I was born to be a mom and a teacher, so I enjoyed every moment of every single day. All of my dearest friends were healthy and alive, and I had a calendar filled with engagements that kept me laughing and loved. My mama and my in-laws were just entering their sixties and seemed destined for many more years of good times with me and my husband and girls. My children were old enough to be more and more independent and together we had so much fun. Life was so idyllic that it came very close to perfection and fooled me into believing that it would always be that way. 

The eighties were when we went on camping vacations with our big canvas tent that sheltered us from rain and cold and critters walking through our site at night. We were all strong enough to hike for miles on treacherous trails that allowed us to discover breathtakingly enchanting views. We cooked and ate under the sky and told stories by a fire. We read and shared books on the long drives to places like Montana. We needed little more than a nylon bag with a few changes of clothes rolled up inside to be on our way. 

During the eighties I worked at a church and then in schools. I hit my stride in terms of confidence and always felt good about myself. I expanded my knowledge of the world with my friend Pat by my side. She introduced me to places and ideas that I had never before encountered even though they existed in my hometown. She was the big sister that I had always dreamed of having and we had such a jolly good time along with our children who became like siblings. 

We often went to see our friends Egon and Marita who were almost exotic in my eyes. Egon was from Germany, but he also had relatives in Norway. He spoke multiple languages fluently and his English was impeccable. Nobody would have suspected that he grew up in Germany. Marita was from Chicago and had a kind of Midwestern accent and outlook on life and politics. They both became members of our extended family, never missing a birthday or holiday tradition that we hosted. My children thought of them as their uncle and aunt. 

My children grew into teens with my friend, Linda, and her boys. We fit together like we were made for each other. The kids learned to swim with the same teacher. We all cheered for the Houston Cougars at parties where our children created games and shows. We had a tradition of taking an hour to actually leave once we had announced our good-byes. 

We lived in a wonderful house that we renovated and expanded to better meet our needs. It became almost custom built after all of the work was done. We loved our neighborhood and our neighbors who were the best people anyone might ever be lucky enough to have nearby. Bob and Carol and Dave and Betty looked after us and taught us how to be better people by example. We always felt safe and secure living near them. 

I never considered the changes that were to come after the nineteen eighties. My daughters went off to college one at a time. Eventually they married and moved away. Linda relocated for awhile in California. My neighborhood began to change while Bob and Carol and Dave and Betty showed signs of growing old. Over time i began to lose people one by one. First Egon died and then my mother-in-law. We moved to a new house in a new neighborhood near my friend Pat. At first we had just as much fun as ever together but then Pat developed cancer. She defeated it in the first round, but when it came back again she succumbed to its invasion of her body. 

Carol, then Dave, then Betty, then Bob died. Marita died too. Soon it was my mother’s time to leave us. My husband and I retired from our jobs. We still took vacations, but no longer in a tent. It was too uncomfortable sleeping on the ground. We flew around and stayed in hotels. We purchased a trailer to use when we needed a dash of nature. We didn’t take those challenging hikes anymore. Life is different now, but it goes on. I have adjusted to the new normal even as I quietly miss the people who brought me so much joy in the past. I am experiencing the inevitable circling of life. These days I most enjoy spending time with my grandchildren who are all grown up. 

I still have friends like Jenny and Eric, Adriana and Tim, Dickie and Tim, Millie and Dustin, Chrystal, Aimee and Tricia. Most of them are younger than I am, but wonderful nonetheless. Linda is still as faithful as ever and I take joy in seeing how great her sons have become. Covid stalled out many of my relationships but I am slowly piecing them back together. A dear friend Nancy will soon be moving back to town after being away for decades. I have rediscovered Kathy, a neighbor from my childhood. I have forged new friendships with my newer neighbors and with Dee and Stephany from my high school days. My father-in-law presently lives with me and my husband. I can pour out the secrets of my heart to my sister cousin, Ingrid. A new Carol calls me all the time to be certain that I am doing well. I teach mathematics three mornings a week.  Life is still good, just different. 

I know that I am blessed, but I cannot help but think of the golden years of the nineteen eighties. I am older wiser and grateful for that time when it felt as though I had reached perfection in my life, the days when Pat would call and tell me to put on my shoes because we were going on an adventure. I can still hear my mother driving up to my house and honking the horn because she was ready to go shopping or to visit the beach. I can feel the warmth of the hot tea that my mother-in-law made to accompany the incredible conversations that would ensue.  I see myself sitting in my front yard with Bob and Carol and Dave and Betty and I am so thankful that I had the privilege of knowing them. I truly became the person I am today with the help of them all. Those eighties really were fabulous!

The First Kiss

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When I was still a wee girl of about five years old a busybody neighbor lady complained to my mother that I was kissing all of the little boys who lived on my street. I don’t recall doing that, but I suppose it would not have been too unlikely. At that time in my life kisses were nothing more to me than a sign of affection. Kissing the boys would have been akin to kissing one of my little brothers. Sadly the woman’s accusation and my mother’s embarrassment over it suddenly made me very self conscious, as though I had done something terrible. I hate to think what would have happened if I had punched those boys in the noses instead!

In the first grade I got an invitation for a birthday party from a guy in my class named Peter. I was actually surprised because I had hardly even spoken to him. My mother supposed that he had invited everyone in the class just to be fair and polite. Anyway I attended the celebration mostly to because my mother thought that it would be rude to turn him down. 

I was surprised to see Peter’s home which in my mind was a mansion. It was a stately two story building with more square footage and rooms than I had ever before seen. During a lull in the activities Peter invited me on a tour of the place and to my horror, when we were away from the other guests he gave me a quick buss on the lips and confessed that he liked me. I really didn’t know how to handle what had happened, so I just ran back downstairs in shock leaving Peter alone and disappointed. I hope I did not ruin Peter’s special day too much.

I suppose that technically either my smooches with the boys on my street or the encounter with Peter  might qualify as my first kiss, but I like to think that such a grand designation only belongs to the first truly romantic kiss. If that is the case, then it would be a long while before I found myself locking lips with someone who sent me over the moon. That honor goes to the man that I married. 

The crazy thing is that I somehow knew that I had found my soulmate the first time he very softly brushed his lips against mine. I felt a kind of zing that I had never before experienced. In fact, most of my dates had been of the “one and done” variety because those kisses at the end of the evening had always felt as hollow and silly as the one I had shared with Peter. I did not want to pursue the relationships because there was just nothing there. 

I suppose that it was not really my future husband’s kiss that knocked me off of my feet as much as the almost instantaneous feeling that I had met my soulmate. I was generally shy about opening up my heart to anyone, but on our first date I told him things that not even my very best friends had heard. I had a sense that I was totally safe with him. Over time my instincts would prove to be right on target. 

The eternal question is whether a physical or emotional attraction comes first. I suppose that we are all a bit shallow when it comes to looks, but ultimately it is the essence of a person’s soul that captures our hearts. When there is a spark of kinship that first kiss becomes memorable and meaningful. 

I remember cautiously telling my friends that I had met the man of my dreams after only a single date with my future mate. I had never before felt so completely comfortable with anyone. To say it was love at first sight would be trite, but I do believe that we both saw something in each other that matched us better than any of those computer dating sites. 

I have a friend who lost her husband after caring for him for many years. She was quite exhausted by the time his life ended both physically and mentally. She had been grieving for him even before he died. When he was gone her life was quite empty. She had spent so much time caring for him that she did not know what to do with herself. Eventually she joined a group that matches older couples with one another.

Much like me in my youth she went through a period of one date disappointments, but eventually encountered a man who seemed to be perfect in every way. The first time they met each other they talked until long into the night. Because they were both retired they spent the next many days together realizing quickly how much they had in common and how comfortable they felt with each other. They were engaged and married within a few months and have lived happily ever since. 

There is a first kiss that may mean little and then there is a first kiss that sends a tingle down the spine. That kiss is not the reason that two people forge a relationship together. It is only a sign that the relationship is real and meaningful. That kiss fits like a perfect pair of shoes and feels like a million dollar pair. That is the kiss that lights the fires of love. 

The Ritual

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It is still dark outside and the rest of the household is sound asleep. This is the time of year when the sun rises a bit later. We will retrieve the early morning sunshine again when we revert to standard time, but for now I am enjoying the solace of being alone in my favorite place inside my home watching the sun slowly come to life while I sip on my tea and eat my morning repast. 

I have perfected a ritual since I retired that calms my soul and helps me to see life through a rosier lens than when I was rushing around each morning to travel to work. Now I revel in the quiet that brings me peace of mind before my part of the world fully comes alive. It is a time for mediating and praying and thinking and creating. It is the precious “me” time that I need to tackle whatever comes later in the day. 

Sometimes I just sit and listen to the silence. I concentrate on my breathing and the gift of life that I have enjoyed. I can’t hear my heart, but I know that it is working and I suddenly feel the miracle and wonder of simply being. It is a glorious way to start the day, a time for introspection and thanksgiving. 

I was laughing with my daughters the other day. I wondered aloud why all of us, including my husband, are such introverts. We heal by being alone in a calm place where we are free to simply exist for a moment. I asked them if they thought that we were genetically inclined to introversion or if they believe that their father and I created an environment that nurtured their introverted traits. We finally decided that it was a bit of both. 

Even when my girls were babies I most enjoyed the feeding times that happened in the dark when they awoke with hunger pangs and roused me from my slumber. While it was tiring to lose my sleep, it was also quite beautiful to be alone with them hearing only their suckling sounds, their baby coos, and their breathing. Everything felt safe and comforting in those moments. We shared a closeness that imprinted our devotion to each other for all time. 

When they grew older we were all still mostly silent at the start of each day. We felt each other’s presence without much spoken acknowledgement. Mornings were slow and easy with unspoken understandings that we loved deeply. We did not need or even want boisterous greetings or salutations. Hugs and kisses and smiles were our way of awakening, not words. We could sit side by side and know love. 

My father-in-law has come to our house to recover from surgery, an almost deadly bout with Covid, and the death of his second wife. We hope he will agree to stay permanently but he is sending signals that his intent is to return home again. I think of him in the early morning and worry about his future. I also laugh at how different he is than my husband and I. 

Each morning my father-in-law comes to breakfast with a loud and cheery greeting of “Good morning!” I doubt he realizes that he jolts us with his enthusiasm, but we will never tell. We understand that he is the ultimate extrovert. He thrives on surrounding himself with people. He loves to begin long conversations before our brains are ready for such things. Breakfast is filled with lights and discussions and chatter as is all of the rest of the day. 

Now I set my alarm and arise earlier than ever to give my mind time to experience its usual routine. As long as I have my quiet time I am okay with my father-in-law’s cheery talk. I understand that he needs the company of people to heal as much as he needs medications and physical therapy. I grow more well in my alone time, but he does better surrounded my people. He loves parties while I prefer my cup of tea all by myself. 

I have learned how to adjust. I still manage to enjoy my morning rituals. Because my father-in-law retires for bed quite early, I find myself also falling asleep not long after he has retired for the night. That allows me to arise long before the rest of my neighborhood or household comes alive. I still have the moments that I need to successfully jumpstart the day. I am revitalized and ready to take on whatever surprises come my way.

This particular morning I am thinking of a sweet young man who only recently became a member of my extended family. He was a beautiful soul with a million dollar smile. We were all happy to welcome him into our fold. He and my cousin married and eventually became the parents of an adorable baby boy. Their life together were only beginning, but it seemed to be heading in a wonderful direction filled with so much love. 

This young and seemingly healthy man died suddenly from a cardiac incident while my cousin attempted to revive him. His death has shaken me and reminded me once again how fragile and precious life is. I know I can handle my extroverted father-in-law even with my introverted personality. It is only a matter of timing and keeping my ritual of meditation intact. After all, what life is really all about is celebrating each moment that we have. I know I must treasure his “good mornings” because one day I won’t hear them anymore. I hope my father-in-law stays with us. I think we need each other.